It has been a magical journey for the boy from a village in UP who reached Milan to be crowned as an original—a stylist with a dash of socialism
Gunjeet Sra | 24 Dec, 2014
It has been a magical journey for the boy from a village in UP who reached Milan to be crowned as an original—a stylist with a dash of socialism
At a lecture series on design in New Delhi, 34-year-old Rahul Mishra is seated at a roundtable with former directors of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, throwing up ideas and discussing prototypes of an ideal school of design. Mishra can’t keep the irritation out of his voice. He is neither a social activist nor an academic, but that doesn’t get in his way of envisioning a system that democratises such an education. “Only rich parents can afford to send their children to design school these days,” says the designer, “If I were studying today, I don’t think my parents would have been able to afford my education.”
Mishra’s ideas for a dream school include an education fee that need be paid only after students start working; they could give, say, 10 per cent of their earnings to their alma mater for two years. He is obviously big on sustainability and bigger on ideas. “A lot of colleges I am associated with give back to society, and I am all about that.” The conversation veers backs to loans and Mishra jokes about a Rs 12 lakh SBI loan he took on his way to Milan and how troublesome it was paying it back. His wavy shoulder-length hair, slightly greasy, frames his face as his eyes gauge the room for familiar faces. Just back from the launch of a new store in Pune, he is getting restless to leave and get home. After a couple of pleasantries, he makes his way out of the hall and back to his room. You know he is just like anyone else when he stuffs the hotel’s complimentary soaps and shampoo sachets in his bag with utter nonchalance and patiently waits for a taxi to take him home.
He has already had plenty of success as an ideas man. He won the Best Student Designer of the Year award at NID in 2005 for his reversible Kerala collection, which he had undertaken as a challenge to revive the handloom industry in that state. The collection was then showcased in 2006 at the GenNext fashion show at the Mumbai Fashion Week, where it won yet another award. He was also the first non-European designer to win a scholarship to Istituto Marangoni, Milan, and most recently, the 2014 Woolmark Prize—previously won by the likes of Karl Lagerfield and Giorgio Armani—for creating a new dreamily wispy fabric of 85 per cent merino wool and 15 per cent silk; with finalists such as Altuzarra, Sibling and Christopher Esber, it was an intense competition where Mishra and the others presented a six-piece collection to a panel of judges that included the likes of Franca Sozzani of Vogue Italy, Alexa Chung, Tim Blanks and Frida Giannini of Gucci. Mishra won not only for his fabric, but also for the collection’s innovative geometric patterns and hand-embroidery on creations that were both delicate and whimsical. Blanks called it ‘scientific fashion’. And Mishra agrees with that description: “There is a lot of science to my clothes; they are not just pretty-looking pieces with no thought. From the composition of the fabric to the 3D geometric designs that I try to impose on my clothes, to something as simple as weaving, all have a certain science attached to them.” In fact, Altuzarra, an American rival at the Woolmark show, was so impressed with Mishra that he said his win was well deserved because the craftsmanship and detail of his work was unique. Winning the prestigious award not only meant more money, but also cemented his position at the Paris Fashion Week, where he will now be a regular. “I have been very lucky with awards,” says Mishra, self-effacingly.
Perhaps what makes him popular with Western admirers is the wearability of what he offers. What he gives them is a product that is Indian in aesthetic, but not over the top. You will never see him designing a hot-pink or an indigo dress with yellow kitschy borders. “I don’t want to sell India to them. I think they have had enough of that. What I want to give them is a product that looks good, and if colour looks good on a design, I will use it, but so far I have pretty much been colour- blind,” he says with a laugh. Even in personal dressing, his style is rather monochromatic. Not for him the faux grandeur of the fashion world. “This is me trying to work on my look. I think even though I am a designer, until a couple of years ago, I had a horrible dress sense.”
Mishra’s aesthetic duality is reflected in his Indian- wear, a riot of colours that gives vent to his inner Uttar Pradesh sensibility, which more or less defines his work. It also shows how well he understands the varied preferences of his market: understated designs as westernwear and bright colours for the basic Indian aesthete in you. Despite their bold colours, his Indian clothes appear to lack the Bollywood glam of, say, a Manish Malhotra outfit, or even the rundown look of a Sabyasachi one. Instead, there is something ordinary and nostalgic about them, a little bit like Mishra himself when you first look at him and can’t wrap your head around the fact that this is the same man who sells impossibly luxurious clothes to women across the globe.
His rooted earthiness is a far cry from the flamboyance and drama that is associated with successful designers everywhere in the world. Perhaps it goes back to his upbringing, of which he says he is proud. “I remember all the virtues I got from my mother and my grandmother. They taught me the values of giving back to society; to never forget where you come from, and to always be grateful. ”
Mishra was born in Malhausi, a small village in Uttar Pradesh. His father was a doctor at a government hospital, and his mother, a homemaker. His childhood was a typical small- town story, spent with his parents and two sisters. It was often frugal, bereft of the luxuries of big towns. Until the age of nine, he stayed with his family, listening to stories told by his grandmother, reading tales of the Panchtantra, finishing his homework by a kerosene lamp since power cuts were frequent, and attending a local school with a monthly fee of Rs 7. Aged nine, he was sent to a boarding school in Lucknow: Maharishi Vidya Mandir. His father hoped that with a good education, his son could secure his future by becoming a doctor, an engineer or an IAS officer. “I won’t lie and say that I grew up reading the British [edition of] Vogue. In fact, I had no clue growing up that I would end up studying design. All I cared about was doodling, drawing and creating comic strips and caricatures. I just loved art.” His love for art was not acceptable at home, and his father pushed him to study science. “I graduated in science from Kanpur University. I remember my Botany and Biology classes vividly, where I would just be excited to draw not only my own diagrams but the entire classes’.” This was the same person who, under the pretext of studying for his board exams, would spend many an hour drawing political caricatures. “I still remember that it was the Narasimha Rao Government and I can till date draw his face in under five seconds,” he says.
After his graduation, his father, a patriarchal man whose word was law, insisted that he do something in the field of science for the sake of stability, but years of pent up angst and rebellion made Mishra finally take the step of running away from home. He moved to Delhi with his sister. On a visit to the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), someone suggested that he join NID, and he took its entrance exam. “I had no idea what I was doing, except I thought my love for art would transcend [everything and translate to a career in] design, and since apparel was the only thing I was [eligible] for, I took the exam and got through. Till date, I don’t understand why they chose me, that too for a Master’s programme.”
This was in 2003 and Mishra was the only science graduate in a room full of design students who understood the nuances of the course and what was expected of them. “For me, the initial days were hard as I felt out of place. But then, I eventually realised that my so-called lack of knowledge on the subject was a boon in disguise, as I had no previous baggage of the word and just absorbed everything that came my way.” In his second year at the institute, he was given a project to offer a new lease of life to the Kerala handloom sector, which was suffering neglect. It was here that he first experimented with craftsmanship and what could be achieved with appropriate weaves. The end result of his experiment was showcased at the Mumbai Fashion Week, and that’s how he won that award. “The award cemented my confidence in a big way and helped me understand that I could definitely make a living doing this.”
Back home, things were getting grudgingly better. Mishra’s father, on realising that he had gotten admission to NID, decided to pay his fees. But whenever someone would ask him what his son was studying, his reply was, ‘design engineering’. Mishra did, of course, have a wide range of interests. At NID, he would attend classes not only for his course, but also for architecture and filmmaking. He even acted in a short film, Saawan ki Ghata. Campus life at NID was something that Mishra had thirsted for all his life. After years of struggling for his idea of a professional future against his father’s, he finally found a balance that suited them both. “There was so much to learn. I never wanted to leave campus,” he says.
It was here at NID that he met Divya, who would eventually become his wife. “During fresher week, we had a couple of fun events lined up to rag juniors. She was a year younger than I was, and I fell in love trying to get the better of her.” This student from Nainital not only had a similar family background (both her parents are doctors), but also had a fiery disposition to match his. They were soon dating. “It was hard at times. For example, when I was in Milan for two years, we dated only through Skype,” he says. They married in 2008 and now work as a team.
Both have come a long way. Until a couple of years ago, before the money started coming in, Divya would model Mishra’s clothes while he would photograph them. A designer in her own right—she too went to Marangoni in 2009—Divya is the pragmatic part of the Rahul Mishra label. “She is an excellent task master. She handles all the shipments, orders, accounts, HR and the public relations aspect of the label. She is my backbone. My muse and my fiercest critic,” says Mishra. “Rahul is a dreamer but a very smart businessman,” says Divya. The fact that she gave up a job offer from Roberto Cavalli to come join her husband is the “single greatest compliment” she has ever given Mishra, as he says. “She always keeps me grounded.”
Although both of them are designers, they have varied influences. For example, Mishra is heavily influenced by Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive of Apple Inc, as also designers like Buckminster Fuller. “I don’t read a lot, but when I do, I love to get my hands on some Rumi. But I must admit that my guilty pleasures are TED talks. I just love listening to them.”
Do they take work home? No. “In a sense of sharing ideas and plans, we do. But other than that, there is a strict policy of ‘no work at home’ as it is important to spend time with family. But then, when you have livelihoods of 50-60 people dependent on you, you can’t help but stress about it.”
Teetotallers, they stay away from the glitter of the fashion world. “We like to keep it real. I feel that sometimes designers get so lost in their universe, they have little time to take care of their families. We have both our parents to look after and we have a bourgeoning business, it keeps us busy every day.”
Their day begins with an aarti—in which they thank the divine for all that has been given to them— and ends at home. The most satisfying aspect for Mishra on this journey has been the fact that he has come such a long way. “When I became the first non-European to win a full scholarship to Marangoni, I thought to myself, ‘The fees at Marangoni was Rs 2 lakh a month, the fee at my first school was Rs 7 a month,’ and the contrast between them gave me confidence.”
Mishra says his big dream is to build a sustainable system for design. “Design is not just about making products for consumption. It has to be participative. Our ethos behind this business is all about participation. In the process of what we do, how can everyone help? We are trying to create a world-class product.”
What is amazing about his work is that the creations come from villages, made by people who have had no formal education but have had generations of expertise passed along. “I cannot think of any other occupation that gives so much dignity to villagers… if you can employ somebody who hasn’t gone to school. Give him access to all the best things in life, help him nurture a craft and build a label that represents India globally. At the end of the day, apparel is just a product. I want India to be known for its luxurious handcrafted garments.”
Rahul Mishra retails at many multi-designer stores in India as well as abroad. In India, the label is available at stores such as Aza (Mumbai & Delhi), Bombay Electric, Bombaim (Kolkata), Collage (Chennai & Bangalore), Ensemble (Mumbai & Delhi), Evoluzioni (Chennai & Bangalore), Ogaan (Delhi, Mumbai) and White (Delhi). He does not believe in PR, but relies on word-of-mouth and the belief that good products speak for themselves. “We don’t want to bombard editors with emails of our launches. What good is publicity if it is paid for,” scoffs Mishra, “Besides we are based in Noida and fairly easy to get in touch with if need be.”
One of the happiest moments for him as a designer was the time he convinced his team of 60-70 weavers living in Mumbai slums to move back to their villages with the promise of work. As a student of fashion and a young designer living in Mumbai until a year-and-a-half ago, he would often visit his weavers at their homes in the slums; their living conditions would break his heart. “These were people who were skilled, with nice houses back home who had to give up the dignity of living just to earn money. They even had to queue for something as simple as the toilet. I wanted to create a system that would allow them some dignity.” He is proud that he helped change their lives for the better. Not only are they free to take on someone else’s work if they so please, they are also allowed to quote their own prices for their output. “I feel happy when my weaver sends me a message from an iPhone,” he says. “The upliftment of technique that has to go into a particular craft only comes when you have leverage and where you focus on luxury. My margins are one- fourth of what other designers have. I am very happy with that. We will not only make more volumes, but sell faster. All I am trying to do is build a system that works.”
Although he is not the first designer to adopt a model of sustainable fashion—Aneeth Arora, Sanjay Garg and Gaurav Jai Gupta come to mind as others who have—but it is him alone who has taken it to a scale that very few others have tried. For him, it is a passion project. Even the Woolmark prize money, nearly Rs 55 lakh, was spent mostly on village workers. “It worries me when villages try to imitate the cities; it makes them lose out on their character. I want them to understand that they can have modernisation without losing their identity.” This need to do have-nots a good turn can perhaps be attributed to his upbringing, but also to the Gandhian disposition that he picked up while at NID. “Gandhi taught that participation is important; it is necessary to make a system change. And I want to change the system by giving back to society and helping them participate in my creative process.”
There are 50 craftsmen who work with him in Noida. In addition, he employs people of modest means across Gujarat, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Over 1,000 craftsmen are employed by Mishra at the moment. “My philosophy is simple; I don’t reject cloth or deduct money if the material doesn’t work. I ask them to innovate instead,” says Mishra. “We are part socialist in our philosophy,” adds Divya.
Perhaps the reason they understand the plight of workers is that they know intimately what it is like to struggle in an unfamiliar place, this feeling of being perpetual outsiders in a world of glitz and glamour.